What happens when accused killers plead insanity?

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Later, at the police station, Holmes pulled a staple from the table and tried to stick it in an electrical socket, a detective testified. He also played with a Styrofoam water cup and pretended that the paper bags that police placed on his hands to preserve gunshot residue were puppets, moving them as if they were talking.

Our examination of previous insanity cases found that it's often obvious right from the beginning — before a defendant has even pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity — that the person who committed the crime has serious mental-health issues.

That was true for Robert Dunn, the father who killed his young daughter. The crime scene was so horrific and Dunn's behavior so bizarre that the prosecutors who worked the case still remember it with a sense of sickening awe, even though the crime took place in June 2000, more than thirteen years ago. Heim, now a private defense attorney in Colorado Springs, was one of the prosecutors who responded to the initial call. He went first to the police station in Manitou, where Dunn was being held.

"I've never seen anybody who looked quite like he looked at that time," Heim says. "He was clearly out of it. His eyes were bugging out of his head. There was a total disconnect with what was going on around him."

Earlier that evening, the 51-year-old Dunn, who owned a liquor store in town, tried to impale his seven-year-old daughter, Aaren, with a crowbar that he'd recently begun keeping for protection. Then he repeatedly stabbed her in the neck and chest with two kitchen knives and tried to rip her head off. "He damn near decapitated Aaren," Heim recalls. "Her head was hanging on by one or two tendons."

Dunn's eleven-year-old daughter, Nadine, escaped the house and ran to a nearby convenience store for help. "My dad is killing my sister!" she yelled. A local carpenter and his girlfriend who were walking into the store heeded Nadine's cries and followed her to the house, where they found Dunn hovering over Aaren in the kitchen. "I put my hand over the wound on her neck and gave her CPR, but the look in her eyes. She was gone, man," the man told the Colorado Springs Gazette. "She was with God."

When the cops arrived, they found Dunn lying in the grass in the back yard. "The devil is here. I killed the devil," he shouted. "She was possessed. I killed the devil."

At the police station, Dunn was "urinating on himself and bewildered and disoriented," recalls John Newsome, a former prosecutor who was Heim's partner on the case. Heim remembers that there was a birthday cake at the police station, and as they waited to speak with Dunn, Newsome dipped his finger in the frosting. As he was about to lick it off, he looked over at the holding cell to find Dunn peering at him through the tiny window in the door, "like Jack Nicholson in The Shining."

After Dunn threatened to hurt himself in jail, the sheriff's office transferred him to the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo. Dunn's public defender, Deborah Grohs, saw the transfer as a stroke of luck; it just so happened that a psychiatrist she'd hired to evaluate another defendant was at the hospital when Dunn arrived and was able to see him, too. Grohs, now a district court judge in the special mental-health court in Colorado Springs, says "to have it happen so quickly to the time of the offense to get the best snapshot of what was going on with Dunn at the time of the crime" was "a true blessing."

The psychiatrist's report was clear: Dunn was insane when he killed Aaren. The state doctors who evaluated him at the hospital agreed with the psychiatrist hired by the defense. "There was not a single doc that said he was sane," Heim recalls. "It was a clear diagnosis of insanity."

With that evidence in hand, the district attorneys decided against a jury trial. But they did want a public airing of the facts, so Heim, Newsome and Grohs agreed to have a trial in front of a judge. "We didn't want to be the ones who said, 'This dude is insane,'" Heim says. "It was a horrific event, and we wanted to have a community determination rather than just a closed-door, DA and defense attorney agree, handshake, he goes down to the state hospital. We wanted to make sure the community knew what was going on."

The proceeding took place in December 2000. It was quick: No cops took the stand to describe the murder scene, and no medical examiner was called to give gruesome testimony about Aaren's wounds, the lawyers recall. The psychiatrists were the star witnesses. A staff psychiatrist from the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo testified that Dunn thought the devil was trying to take over Manitou Springs and was using Aaren to do so. Afterward, the psychiatrist said, Dunn showed no remorse.

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar